Defending Vision Zero

By Claes Tingvall and Maria Krafft

Since its launch in Sweden in 1995, Vision Zero policies have spread at an unbelievable pace. Nations, states, municipalities, organizations, corporations and people around the world have elevated the idea of the citizen’s right to survive in traffic. While transportation road systems are currently responsible for almost 1.3 million deaths annually, Vision Zero states that, in the long run, there should be none.

While the popularity of Vision Zero and its growth to encompass so many stakeholders of different sizes, roles and competencies is very positive and promises to save millions of lives, expansion brings the threat of dilution. Increasingly, the content of Vision Zero policies being proposed is less pure than when Vision Zero began.

When Vision Zero is seen as natural, an idealized philosophy rather than an actionable set of policies, then our goals become dreams instead of destinations. When the longterm vision is stated, but no action is taken toward fewer deaths and serious injuries, Vision Zero appears weak or ill-conceived, or perhaps results in traffic safety measures not being implemented at all. Our sincere hope is an important part of Vision Zero, but our hope must be supported by action.

Vision Zero must be a policy based on ethics, shared responsibility and must use only scientific methods to eliminate death and serious injury. In its inception, this was based in three ideas:

First, Vision Zero states that the traditional trade-off between mobility and safety is banned. Mobility is a function of safety, which means that safety comes first in the design and functionality of any transportation system. An investment in safety is therefore an investment in functionality, accessibility or mobility, and in reality there is no conflict.

Second, the responsibility for safety is divided between the providers of the transportation system and the users. The user is expected to follow the basic rules of the transportation system, like staying sober, obeying speed limits and wearing a seat belt. Everything else falls on the providers, and the providers are a broad group of people: policymakers, elected officials, trucking companies, city planners and traffic engineers are all included. If the road user fails to follow the basic rules, the responsibility falls back on the providers to come up with new solutions.

Third, all decision-making around Vision Zero should be based on science and documented experience. Providers must be evidence-based in their decisions, because they are responsible for the life and health of users. There is no room for experimenting with methods that have proven ineffective. Like doctors, providers’ only prescriptions for roads should be those which have been proven to be effective and safe. Since more than 90% of all crashes can be attributed to human error, the transportation system must be robust and tolerate human errors.

From these three cornerstones, we can fairly well distinguish between what is Vision Zero and what it is not. Our most important work, as Vision Zero spreads around the world, is drawing this line in the sand.

If a stakeholder, nation, municipality or corporation claims that their actions, products or services are based on Vision Zero, it is normally quite obvious whether this is true or not. If a city does not have a plan for speed management that limits drivers to 20 miles per hour where streets are used by pedestrians, it is not a city that is serious about Vision Zero. If the CEO of a taxi company does not manage their employees or vehicles to wholly prevent speeding and strictly prioritize pedestrian safety, that CEO is not serious about Vision Zero, either. If an elected official or policymaker claims that educating children about traffic rules would be a good idea, they are without basic knowledge about traffic safety. If a motorcycle organization or manufacturer claims that advanced driver training is effective for safety, its claims are in fact a dangerous exercise. These are obvious cases of Vision Zero in name only.

It is the responsibility of every person with the power to influence Vision Zero where they live to make sure that their Vision Zero is sound and effective. In the past, traffic safety was driven at best by lack of knowledge but often also by myths and “common sense” and what might be most popular. Today, in places where Vision Zero has been adopted, the strong tenets that govern the policy should eliminate this lack of rigor.

But this is not the case everywhere. From Sweden to the United States, we see examples of weak and watered-down versions of Vision Zero. The threat of these examples might be a serious threat to Vision Zero globally.

If it becomes common to merely rebrand “business as usual” as Vision Zero, and therefore acceptable for Vision Zero to have little effect on safety, then Vision Zero will not survive as meaningful policy. If a practice is branded as Vision Zero without lowering risk to people, the reputation of Vision Zero will decline precipitously.

If it becomes common to merely rebrand “business as usual” as Vision Zero, and therefore acceptable for Vision Zero to have little effect on safety, then Vision Zero will not survive as meaningful policy.

As we look to a future where Vision Zero has spread around the globe, we must see communities where Vision Zero is open to all new needs, technologies and trends. To build livable cities, where pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders are put before the users of private cars, we must begin by always considering the safety implications. Autonomous driving, driverless cars and robotized vehicles must not only be safe, but also feel safe, so our children grow up in cities where safety is the clear and present priority. To ensure the future is safer than the present, we must go beyond claiming that new technologies are a danger; we must engage with coming challenges and help guide them. Here, Vision Zero can be our road map to navigate a fast-changing society.

The Vision Zero of tomorrow will be defined by the policies and actions we take today, so our care is essential. It is important for us all that Vision Zero remains undiluted, powerful and unflinchingly aimed at saving the lives our fellow citizens.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

Claes Tingvall is a professor and senior consultant at ÅF Consult in Sweden. Claes was Director of Traffic Safety at the Swedish Transport Administration until 2015 and was engaged in the development of Vision Zero from day one. Maria Krafft is Associate Professor and Director of Sustainability and Traffic Safety at the Swedish Transport Administration since 2015. She has been engaged in the development of Vision Zero from day one.

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Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.